Liou's quiet little life...or is it?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Holidays, tomorrow!!!!

[One note: if you want to see the bigger versions of the pictures, just click on them. It's quite intuitive, but just to be sure ;) ]

It's 29th of December and I am sitting at the office, supposedly "working". I am doing this so I can save one day of holiday for 2006. Indeed, holiday days are so scarse that I am taking any opportunity to pile them up. Tonight I am taking the nightbus to Uozu, where my grandparents live. I was thinking about going to Kyoto afterwards to see my uncle, but that would be quite an expense for a short amount of days. I will wait for another time, also when it's warmer. Here in near Tokyo it is quite sunny, but I hear my grandfather's region (Toyama-ken) is covered with snow, and I will probably have to help him out with the garden. I might even do some snowboarding or ski-ing for the first time in my life! Enough mountains to go around, anywhere in Japan actually, and with my friend Katsuma we might drive around. Work starts again the 10th, but I will go back to Tokyo the 7th, so I can spend some time with my uncle and aunt. I haven't seen them since I started working in Atsugi, so it will be very nice to meet them again.

In the meantime, I am getting more familiar with the work topics. It is still not completely clear what I should contribute, but I will have to talk about this with my boss, Owa-san. Most of the trainees are working on perfecting the recognition module for their mother language, but since I know several ones well I assume I will work on a broader level.

It is sometimes difficult for me to describe the life and culture here; it is completely different in so many facets and details. Maybe describing some of these parts will help create a general, broader picture of Japan. For example, the "convenience store". There about at least 15 chains, such as 7/11, Lawson, AM/PM, just to name a few. You will find them often one next to another, at stations and near busy roads. But I guess you are never further away than 200 m of one. They have mainly food, for example at least 50 kind of sweet cakes, 20 kinds of yoghurt, and 25 kinds of ice cream, just to give you a picture. There is one just next to the AXT tower (where I work), and it also sells socks, underwear and even cotton white-collar shirts! They also have some typical stuff, such as adapters with which you can recharge you mobile phone with regular pen-lites! Mobile phone is definitely something that Japanese can not live without, but I guess I would need another section to go on this. I bought one a week ago, and even if the language is in English, I probably only know about 10% of its functionality! Some convenience stores such as Lawson and FamilyMart (note the alteration of market in the last chain name) have machines that look like bank machines but can provide all kind of services. For example I used one to buy credit for my call card to make international phone calls. The card company sent me a detailed instruction, which was very handy since all the menus are in Japanese. This resulted in a printed coupon which I took to the vendor, and after paying 2000 Yen I received a confirmation with the hanko (=official japanese stamp used instead of a signature) of the store. And indeed, when I used the card from my phone, the cal credit had been added. It all seemed quite miraculous, convenient but in some way also cumbersome at the same time, as you have to follow quite some steps to make a cheaper, international call.

Maybe, in lack of spectacular events such as my transsiberian trips, I will go on describe ancedotes or typical japanese objects and customs. I think this might give a better picture of the country and its culture, instead of trying a generic approach. Subjects I will definitely describe: the mobile phone (and the japanese smileys ^_^ ), love hotels, the consumption society, television programmes and advertisements, food. Although I remember that Bert's partner, Yolandi (read below) described Japan quite accurately as being a "parallel world". A lot of Western influence and things that look the same, but in someway are different. For example, the books look regular, but when you look inside, the reading order of the pages is from right to left (as opposed to left->right in occidental countries).

Two Sundays ago I met with a former Dutch university teacher of mine, Bert Bongers. He was also the second reader for my Master's Thesis. He is teaching at various institutions, not only the Vrije Universiteit, but also the Technische Universiteit of Eindhoven, where he is the coordinator of a design study. He came to Japan for a student trip to various design-related companies, universities and other instances. Two weeks ago he was in Tokyo, so we met at Harajuku, together with his partner Yolandi and his colleague Kees Dorst. Just next to the metro station, there is a bridge (which name I can't remember now) with "cosplay" adepts. These are apparently high school girls that might be bullied or somehow unhappy in school, and like to wear eccentric costumes (cos play <- costume play) to express themselves in the week-end. What scared me most were the older man taking pictures of them...God knows for what purpose...

Actually, while waiting to meet them, I walked around in Yoyogi-park, which is just next to Harajuku. Inside is a famous Shinto shrine (Shinto being the indigenous religion of Japan, as opposed to Buddhism, which came from China), and apparently there were a series of weddings. I just love the costumes of the Shinto priests and priestress, they are so colourful, simple but yet so tasteful.

After all this emotion we went to a very nice (design!) cafe which we found by chance, and after this we had shabu-shabu in Shibuya, a lively district of Tokyo (see photo below).

This is a traditional japanese dish where several vegetables and tender japanese, incredibly thinly sliced beef are boiled in water. The mixed flavours of these ingredients together with the wonderful citrus-based sauces are simply delicious. Anyway, it was very cool to meet Bert in the middle of Tokyo! Here is a picture of my appartment complex ("Youth Heim") to give you an idea of the uniformity and efficiency of Japanese architecture, as well as blandness :)

And this is the AXT tower, where I work.
Anyway, I wish you all the best for 2006, and I am always curious to know what everybody is up to :)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Things have sped up a great deal since a week, so it was difficult to find time to update you people. Enjoyed my last days of unpaid holiday before working, for example spent some time looking for my first japanese electronic gadget, a PDA (=small computer used for schedules, notes, addresses etc). I bought one quite cheaply second-hand in Akihabara, but the main feature for me though is that you are able to
draw japanese signs (kanji), which the computer recognizes and can even give a translation into english. Very practical when you are looking for washing powder in the supermarket and you don't understand anything of what's written on the boxes!! For example a Spanish colleague actually used softener for a month, until he realized his clothes smelt strange even though they were very, very soft :)

Last Monday took the train from my uncle's house to Atsugi. I have made a little map you can see here (click on it for a larger version):

So it takes me about 1 hour to get to the first big station inside Tokyo (Nippori), then another 30 minutes to get to Shinjuku, on the other side of Tokyo and the biggest public transport station in Japan I believe. And finally about another hour to get to Hon-atsugi - for some strange reason station the Atsugi station is now redundant. So about 2,5 hours, even if both suburbs are said to be close to Tokyo!

I was welcomed there by Takako-san ('san' is a prefix used for politeness, it would be rude to say just Takako), the internship manager, a friendly, young woman, and Nakura-san, the head of the Yokohama branch of my job agency company (I work as a Japanese citizen on a temporary contract). Takako-san is much more informal than her
japanese colleagues, probably due to having worked for several years with young foreigners. We headed for the "Youth Heim", the dorm rented out to mainly young Asashi Kasei employees, although other people can rent a place there as well. This was the first shock. My friend Reinoud (who has lived in Tokyo about three years ago) could tell me the exact lay-out of the room without ever having seen it! Apparently
most of them have been built in the eighties according to the same exact plan:

* a small entrance hall where you leave your shoes (never enter a japanese room with them!)

* in this same hall an incredibly small kitchen, even though that word can't be really used to describe this anymore

* also in this a hall a door on the right hand to the equally surprisingly tiny bathroom, all plastic pre-fab. This was actually the part that shocked me most, even though I am already quite used to it now. Apparently they are made in the factory and fit exactly in the appartment; you only need to connect some tubes afterward and there is your bathroom!

* the main room, about 3 by 4 meters I would guess. I expected tatami, but just carpet here. The bed is confortable, but no central heating. This is in general very rare to Japan, they just use air-conditioners. This makes sense in summer, when the humid air can be made drier, but seems to me like a waste of energy in winter. Another common heating option are stoves that work on petroleum. You can move them around, which is quite handy, but I would say they are far more dangerous.

The room actually reminded me of my cabin in the boat from Russia to Japan, even though its bathroom was more spacious! But I am getting used to it, the only real inconvenient being the lack of space for cooking: no place to cut up the ingredients, and only one gas connection, so can't do too complicated cooking. Well, that will leave some place for creativity here. Even though the ingredients at the local supermarket are quite expensive, especially the meat and vegetables. My colleagues pointed out that it's often cheaper and far more practical to eat at the various small restaurants in the centre.

After leaving my luggage at the youth heim, we went together to the city council to register me in Atsugi. This happened quite efficiently and quickly, a big difference with Russia :) The next step was going to the office, which is located in the biggest building of Atsugi, the AXT tower, which has about 28 floors I believe. My office is located on the 22th and offers a nice view of the surroundings. You can see the sea from the main window, a very nice sunset from the toilet and normally you should see Fuji-san, the most famous mountain of Japan, but I haven't figured out which window that would be. Anyway, you can see it from the street level as well, at least when the sky is clear.

Left: AXT tower, just right of the middle in the distance: Fuji-san

Seeing the office was the second shock: a large room with about 40 peoples working in cubicles made up of long tables separated by metal parts for each individual. They are at head-level when sitting, so when you stand up, you can see everybody. At first this seemed very crowded and intimidating. No personal space, just berths similar to
the ones where cows eat in Dutch farms. And the boss can always see what is going on, just by standing up. And then everybody had their headphones on and were staring at the monitor, which gave them a zombie-like appearance. Other strange details are the fact that some women wear a kind of blue overall, similar to those used while
cooking. Apparently this is meant to protect them from radiation. So do only women wear them because of the fact that they can bear children? Just one of the many strange characteristics of Japanese society... Secondly, my boss, Owa-san has two kinds of clothes: a regulary salaryman outfit (darkblue suit, white shirt and tie), but also a factory-like, white uniform with a blouse with zipper. During break time I have seen a lot of people wearing those, and I find it peculiar that they would wear this in an office, although they seem more at place in a factory.

Actually, I only had slept about two hours before going to Atsugi due to a combination of bad preparation (very typical) and nervousness (less typical). This had its toll during the contract formality. Takako-san, Nakura-san (the head of the job agency) and me were accompanied by another employee from the job agency and an official interpreter! Except me and Takako, all were wearing formal, black business suits. This seemed completely absurd to me, but apparently signing contracts is one of the most formal parts of japanese business practice. My Japanese language skill didn't allow me yet to understand what Nakura-san was saying, or only very much partially, so the interpreter had to translate everything. All the clauses were
thoroughly explained, which caused the session to last for at least 2 hours, although it seemed much longer due to my lack of sleep! When I thought it was over, some foreign trainees and me got an explanation of the possibility of getting an insurance on commutation by bicycle. This included some clauses where we had trouble not to smile such as the exemption of the insurance in case of bicycle accidents due to
earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, war and terroristic attacks. I could already pictured myself getting hit by a rocket while taking my 5-minute bike ride and not getting any compensation for that :) After this, I was finally ready to go home and cooked some curry with my Dutch colleague Randy. This painly failed due to the use of too much water resulting in curry soup rather than rice & curry.

The next day I got an introduction from Owa-san (my boss) about the Vorero project and the different parts of the Vorero software and how to train it. My task now is to make several exercises to get acquainted with the Vorero training kit. Btw, Vorero is a product that allows speech recognition for various applications, such as
controlling your car radio or gps navigation system e.g. So, that's what I am doing basically, next to reading some theoretical parts with great amounts of mathematical formulas.

Wednesday I bought a new bicycle for about 50 euro, which is not bad, but I doubt the robustness is as high as good, old-fashioned Dutch bikes! Anyway, the bicycle is indispensable here to go around; so all the trainees have one.

This was all after going on a small excursion with all the foreign trainees: the hospital! Apparently, all japanese employees need to do an annual, medical check-up. Takako-san had made the appointment for us, so there were several nurses who did all kind of checks in a very efficient, assembly-line manner. All the different checks were assigned to different nurses and rooms, so waiting time was kept to a
minimum. Best for the last, the blood check, which to my surprise was almost painless.

Leaving the office to go to the hospital, from left-to right:
Stephane (GER), Randy (NL, almost not visible), Jason (USA), Marco
(IT), Pedro (POR, from back), Guillaume(FR), Joanne (Hong-Kong),
Takako-san (JP), Jose (SP)

I haven't done so much on the evenings; most of the time I was too tired from absorbing all the information at work that I would eat, watch some tv and go to sleep afterwards. I guess that's the regular life of a salaryman, or any office worker in the world for that matter :) Quite a contrast after my travel through Russia though. Actually the only activity I undertook was going to the free Japanese lesson at
the local community centre. I was probably the only European person there, while the other students were mainly asians, such as Chinese, Korean and Indian. According to my language skill they put me in one of the highest group, which is maybe just a bit too difficult, but this way I can extend my vocabulary very quickly. In theory I can go and take these 2-hourly lessons 3 times a week, but don't know if have
the time, energy, discipline or will to do so. We'll see how it will go.

Friday I went to bed early and was finally able to sleep as long as I can. Although my working hours are from 9.30 to 18.15, which is really decent, I really needed some sleep, probably due to the bad start this Monday. Saturday chilled out with Guillaume, a French guy studying in Lyon before coming here and from Paris.

Saturday I decided to go out with a Dutch couple I met at a science party at the Dutch embassy. They are mainly artists, but also do all kind of jobs to earn money, such as giving technical assistance to the embassy. We went to AGEHA, one of the biggest discotheques in Japan apparently, although it can't compare to some disco's I have seen in Spain. But still very impressive, especially the technical equipment,
such as 32 high-end speaker boxes and loads of robo-scans. The main reason I went there was to see Deep Dish, arguably two of the best dj's in the world, playing house music (slightly progressive) and producing their own tracks, now trying to enter in the pop scene ("flashdance" e.g.). I had listened to their sets on mp3's and found
them very good, because they use very melodic tracks, but always with a strong, exciting beat. This time however they quickly skipped the harmonic parts and played tough tracks with minimal percussion more akin to techno and hardhouse. This was really disappointing as this is not my piece of cake. But still it was an experience to see this disco and the outfits of the japanese clubbers. Nothing really
extravagant, but still very stylized. And they definitely know how to party, albeit in a kind of civilized way!